Employment Discrimination Laws

Federal law, along with the laws of many states, prohibits employers from discriminating against job applicants and employees based on a number of different factors, such as race, sex, religion, disability and age. People who believe that they have experienced discrimination at work may choose to pursue a claim for damages.

Protected Classes

In addition to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a number of other federal laws have been enacted to protect specific categories of workers from the negative effects of employment discrimination. These categories are referred to as protected classes. An employment discrimination claim must prove that a worker faced discrimination because of membership in a protected class. Protected classes include:

  • People of either gender discriminated against for their sex
  • Workers age 40 and over
  • Mentally or physically disabled workers
  • Workers of a particular religion
  • Workers of a particular race or color
  • Workers who are pregnant

Discrimination in the Employment Process

Job discrimination can occur at any point in the employment process. A person may endure discrimination during an interview or while making an initial inquiry about a job opening. After being hired, depending on the details, workers could face employment discrimination if they were fired or demoted due to their belonging to a protected class.

Reasonable Accommodations

Discrimination at work often happens when an employer fails to make reasonable accommodations for a worker in a protected class. Failing to reasonably accommodate a worker with temporary or permanent disabilities could lead to an employment discrimination charge. Employers are legally required to accommodate disabled workers with things like modified work schedules, accessible parking and changes in workplace policies.

Employers generally have to accommodate a worker’s religious practices, as well. This includes instituting workplace policies accommodating faith-based customs, such as modes of dress. However, an employer is not required to make reasonable accommodations if doing so would cause it an undue hardship.

In addition to prohibiting actions like basing hiring decisions on religion, the law maintains that creating or permitting hostile work environments for employees of certain faiths constitutes discrimination. Employers should also not make allowances for one religion but not others.

Filing a Discrimination Complaint with the EEOC

Employees who believe that they have been the target of unlawful discrimination may first have to file a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). The EEOC will then conduct an investigation into the matter and, if there is reasonable cause to believe that discrimination occurred, pursue a resolution with the employer through a process called conciliation.

If the employer refuses to resolve the matter, the EEOC can file a lawsuit against the employer on behalf of the employee who was discriminated against or give the employee the right to sue. There are strict time deadlines applicable to this process that an employment law attorney can outline.

Employment Discrimination Claims

Employment discrimination can be difficult to prove, often relying on circumstantial (rather than direct) evidence of discrimination. Employment law cases also involve complex litigation procedures that can make them particularly tricky.

Burden shifting is a commonly accepted procedure for handling many discrimination claims. Did the plaintiff present facts that sufficiently support the claim? If so, the burden shifts to the defendant employer, which has the opportunity to disprove the evidence presented by the plaintiff.

If the employer rejects the claim, the employee must then prove that the denial was an excuse for the discriminatory actions. In some cases, juries have ruled in favor of employees only to have their verdict nullified by appeals courts on the grounds that the plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence.

If a settlement is reached or a case is won in court, the employee may be eligible for a number of remedies that could include compensatory damages, back pay, lost benefits or even reinstatement. Punitive damages might also be available in egregious cases in order to discourage the employer from committing future similar actions.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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